For Teachers

The Competition

I’m thinking out loud here.  I’m hoping to start a conversation.   Here goes.

 The high school where my husband teaches recently hosted a group of teachers and students from France.  In talking with the kids, he discovered how surprised they were by the level of competitiveness in American society in general and school in particular.  The drive to beat out others and prove you’re the best perplexed and kind of amused them, my husband said.  They could see it in sports, but when it came to learning and creating? 

I remembered that conversation when I came across a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times.  We’ve all read (and maybe written!) articles deploring how test-driven schools have become, but this essay was especially moving to me.  Claire Needle Hollander, a middle school English teacher, for years has successfully used novels like “Sounder” and  “The Red Pony” with her marginalized students, students who understand better than she can a book like “Of Mice and Men” with its “terrible logic—the giving way of dreams to fate.” 

Yet the pressures of test performance have forced her to cut way back on the amount of real literature she can teach.  Rather than helping her kids learn to love reading, to experience the way a story can hack that old frozen sea inside, she’s teaching them how to pick the right multiple-choice answer.  In the frantic effort to raise test scores, she says, “We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound.”     

Which brings me, in a very round-about way, to writing contests for kids, another place where we quantify their efforts.  Of course, there’s a huge difference between standardized tests and contests, which students enter voluntarily.  I recently judged two competitions, both sponsored by libraries, and I’m here to say I was the mega winner.   The work I read will inspire me for months to come—its earnestness, its exuberance, its gravity and playfulness and the sense that everything matters.  Matters a lot.  As a  writer, I felt more than ever the tremendous responsibility I have to deliver my readers the highest quality work I’m capable of.

But as a judge, my heart got a real work-out.  Rewarding one child inevitably means hurting another.  While I know as well as anyone that the growing-up road is pitted with potholes, I had a terrible time knowing some writers would feel their work wasn’t good enough.  It made me remember when my own daughters took part in Power of the Pen competitions.  I was leery of the whole business, even when their teacher explained, “Kids who are athletic get recognized all the time.  This is a way to celebrate our quiet, creative kids.”

Well yes.  If you win.  Since I write for adults too, I’ve entered lots of contests sponsored by literary journals.  I’ve won a few, lost far more—but my old skin is tough by now. I even know enough to be pleased by a nice rejection!  Yet I worry about younger, more tender souls who put their hearts on the page.  Is picking one over another really the best way to nourish them?     

Those writers whose work I read were clearly all readers.  I could see it in their vocabulary, their pacing, their cadences—these were kids busy metabolizing language and story-telling.  You could say that, in this sense, they’re winners already. I consoled myself by hoping that the process of completing their stores had been exhilarating in and of itself.  I eased my guilt by  thinking some of them probably hadn’t know what they were capable of, and now they’d get hooked, and write more and more.  Maybe not winning (I couldn’t bring myself to use that L word) would spur some to work even harder—after all, if it’s instant gratification you’re after, forget being a writer.  Kids are resilient.  And hey, it’s never to young to learn you can’t always win, right? 

This, I’m sure, is what all the dedicated librarians, teachers and parents who support these kids hope, too.  And then of course, there are the winners, so talented and promising and deserving of recogntion.  It’s impossible to measure the boost that external validation can give to a writer (just ask me!)

Still, I fret.  With all the competitiveness in our children’s lives—fourth graders prepping for the SATs, eleven years olds specializing in a single sport—do we really need to make art a contest, too?  With the pressure they face in the classroom, are we adding to their sense that everything they do can be quantified and ranked?  

Please chime in!  Teachers, librarians, parents, kid-lovers—what do you think?  On balance, are contests positive or negative things?  Are there other, possibly better, ways to publicly encourage and recognize kids’ creativity? 

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Speaking of competitons: Tricia’s middle grade novel “What Happened on Fox Street” was recently named a finalist for two state awards.  Hypocrite that she is, she would love to win! 

Authors Visiting Schools: thinking outside the box

There are some good resources online about the basics of an author school visit and here are two of them.

ABCs of Author visits

http://www.sellingbooks.com/the-abcs-of-author-school-visits

scbwi resources

http://www.scbwi.org/Pages.aspx/The-ABC-s-of-a-Successful-Author-Illustrator-Visit

Rather than restate what’s already available, I’d like to look at the variety of school visit experiences an author might try or a school might ask for.

1. The whole school presentation

When most people think of authors visiting schools the image of an auditorium full of kids listening to an author tell the tale of how a story became a book is what comes to mind. Usually the author brings a power point presentation and sometimes, interesting objects for students to look at. Often there is reading aloud and almost always some time for Q & A.

2. The large group writers’ workshop

Here an author teaches a full classroom of students a writing lesson. It usually draws on an element from the author’s books and involves a writing exercise from the students. It usually works best to have a topic you’ve discussed with the teachers ahead of time and a writing activity every child in the room can feel successful with. Poetry often works particularly well, but any writing topic can succeed if it’s well taught.

3. Small group writers’ workshop

A more in-depth and longer writing workshop works best with a smaller group of students who either volunteer or are chosen for the experience because of their avid interest in writing.

4. The demonstration lesson

This works well with small and large groups and has the advantage of not requiring the students to bring their own pencil and paper and produce individual writing. A demonstration might show how an illustrator creates a character, or how a writer maps a plot using audience participation and usually a white board, smart board or document camera.

5. The author interview

This format allows more participation from students who plan the interview ahead of time and take turns asking questions. It works well with Skype. In a very large school, recording a video of the author reading and students interviewing the author for later viewing may be the most practical way to use an author’s time.

6. The author luncheon

Some schools have a tradition of inviting a small group of students to have lunch with the author and interact in a much less formal way. It can be a great place to run a few story ideas by them or get immediate feedback on a scene the author is working on. Often the children chosen are avid writers so it’s also a perfect venue to ask them to tell you their favorite stories.

7. The non-writing workshop

Sometimes authors will offer a workshop on a subject that pertains to their book and suits a school’s curriculum. It might be anything from drama to history. I know an author who has considerable expertise in historical costuming who brings in clothing from the historical era of her book and talks about how what people wear informs us about the way they live. Fascinating!

8. Family Literacy Night

Another option is an evening event for students and parents that highlights the authors books and the student’s writing. It can be an opportunity for promoting read aloud at home, family story telling, the writing and collecting of letters, or the keeping of diaries. Sometimes this involves author Q&A, snacks, games, or an art activity.

9. The author-in-residence

This is an ambitious and very time-consuming project both for a school and for an author, but it can be the most rewarding experience of all. With a daily visit over one week or one day visits stretched over a few weeks, you have the opportunity to develop the kind of trust with young writers that makes real writing growth possible. Solid teaching experience and an enthusiastic school is essential.

10. The personal visit

The best place for beginning writers to start out is with a single classroom visit where the teacher is a personal friend. The format varies from a simple reading plus a little Q&A to a writing lesson, organized by the teacher and assisted by the author. Here’s a place an author can learn the ropes of working with children and get honest and kind feedback from a trusted source.

I hope this gives you some idea of the range of possibilities. I’ll be following this post up in a few weeks with specific things an author can do to prepare for a school visit and then one more post on how schools can gain the most from their visiting author. I’ll also like to do a round-up of school visit questions, so if there’s something you’ve always wanted to know about school visits, leave me a comment and I’ll follow up later today or over the weekend.